Article by Ian Dear, author of The Tattie Lads: The Untold Story of the Rescue Tug Service
During World War II the men of the Royal Navy’s Rescue Tug Service considered themselves neither fish nor fowl.
Their expertise was essential, for ocean towage requires great skill and a cool head, but as volunteers from the Merchant Navy they had to sign what was known as the T.124T agreement, which put them under naval discipline for the duration of the war.
A corruption of T.124T gave them their nicknames, The Tattie Lads, but they often felt they belonged nowhere; one rescue tug even adopted the motto Filius Nullius (belonging to no one; orphan).
Their attitude was well expressed by one of their officers, Jack Close, who later remarked in his memoir, Beyond the Horizon: ‘A dislike of authority and a grudging adherence to law and order characterized the service, the officers being no exception.'
We conformed when necessary in order to placate the Admiralty, otherwise we went our own way, quietly proud of the job we did, which, by its very nature, was often carried out in the worst of conditions and in the knowledge that we were frequently somebody’s last hope.’
In the Admiralty’s eyes the Service was civilian while the Royal Navy was a military organization. It was a conflict that frequently surfaced when it came to such matters as discipline, pay, and the unequal award of decorations, which Churchill for one thought nonsense.
The Service’s officers were either RNR or RNVR and the vessels they manned were armed and entitled to fly the White Ensign.
For all intents and purposes they were as much part of the Royal Navy’s fighting escort forces as the corvette during the Battle of the Atlantic, which the later rescue tugs resembled in size.
The larger ones operated in the deep Atlantic from the Rescue Tug’s main base at Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre – and later with the escort groups that protected the convoys themselves – while the smaller ones, based at Harwich, helped escort convoys up and down the east coast.
This was an area known as E-boat alley where the German equivalent of the Motor Torpedo Boat tried on a nightly basis to disrupt the north-south flow of goods and materials.
The Service was also active in the Mediterranean, where the Allies mounted a series of amphibious operations to clear Axis forces from North Africa and then from Sicily, Italy, and the South of France.
The Rescue Tug Service was involved in all these undertakings, pulling stranded landing craft off the beaches, often under enemy fire, and towing damaged ships to safety, so that the Service could later return them to Britain for repair.
They also saved many lives by picking up the survivors of troop transports that were sunk. When a guided bomb sank SS Rhona off the Algerian coast in November 1943 the Rescue Tug Mindful saved over 250 lives. But more than a thousand US Army personnel were killed or drowned, the heaviest loss of life the US Army suffered at sea during the entire war.
Then in June 1944 the Allies launched the Normandy Landings to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, the largest operation of its kind ever undertaken.
Essential to its success was the construction of two artificial harbours, codenamed MULBERRIES. Every prefabricated piece had to be towed across the Channel and reassembled by army engineers, right under the noses of the Germans.
It was an astonishing feat in which the Rescue Tug Service played its full part. Four of its commanding officers were decorated with the DSC and others were mentioned in dispatches.
By the war’s end the Rescue Tug Service, with the aid of US Lend-Lease, had grown to 85 rescue tugs and over 2000 personnel.
For the loss of 20 tugs, ‘either by mine, torpedo, bomb or stress of weather’, it had saved nearly three million tons of merchant shipping and 254 British and Allied warships.
It was a record of which they could be rightly proud, but there was an extraordinary corollary to this success: when the official histories were written after the war there was not one word about what the Service had achieved.
Why? No one can be sure, but the remarks made by Jack Close in his memoir may provide at least part of the answer.
The Tattie Lads: The untold story of the Rescue Tug Service in two world wars and its battles to save cargoes, ships and lives by Ian Dear is published by Bloomsbury on 2 June. To buy a copy, click here